On April 14, what's being called the biggest strike in recent memory in China began at one of the Yue Yuen factories in Dongguan, southern China. Depending on what reports one reads, the numbers on strike went from thirty to forty thousand, with the South China Morning Post of April 18 reporting the number as 50,000. The strike started at one of the 7 factories of the Taiwan-based Yue Yuen Industrial Holding Company, the world's largest branded shoemaker, which makes footwear for Nike, Adidas, Converse, Reebok, Timberland and dozens more. A woman just retired from one of the factories worked out her pension payments and discovered that they were well short of what she expected. A strike broke out at the factory and a couple of hundred workers walked out, only to be followed by tens of thousands more from the other 6 plants in the following days. A few days later, anything from two thousand to six thousand workers (depending on reports) walked out from the Yue Yuen plant in the neighbouring province of Jiangxi over the same issue of the underfunding of the social wage.
The underfunding of workers' benefits - pensions, injury compensation, redundancy pay, sickness and unemployment pay - is becoming a big issue for the working class in China, particularly as factories close, relocate to cheaper locations abroad like Vietnam for example, or internally within China, as with from militant Shenzhen to more peaceful (for the moment) Huizhou Province for instance. This chronic underfunding is by no means a phenomenon linked to foreign-owned companies as some elements of the Chinese bourgeoisie have suggested - and have done so in the past in relation to Japanese-owned businesses - but is the general practice of Chinese capitalism along with all the capitalist states of the west as workers’ pensions, unemployment pay and social benefits are cut further and further back. It's also significant that the working class in China is raising the issue of pension provisions and other longer term benefits. It shows, just like the workers of the west, the great concern and unease that exists for the future and future generations of workers. Their actions are in a line with the struggle against pension cuts in France 2010 which mobilised workers of all ages onto the streets in a massive show of anger and protest. It's the same issue that mobilised the New York subway strike in December 2005 when the bosses attempted to cut future pensions payments and curtail medical benefits leading some 35000 workers to walk out. A similar concern for the future has contributed to mobilising workers and youth in mass demonstrations in Spain and Greece bringing tens of thousands onto the streets. And it took all the deviousness of the British trade unions to smother the concern and anger of workers in Britain against a brutal assault on pensions in both the private and public sector with the unions helping the bosses to facilitate cuts in pensions, while cutting the pensions and increasing the contributions of workers directly employed by them.
Another issue coming to the fore for the proletariat in China, raised by cuts in social benefits and the growing number of factory closures is that many jobs are now classified by the state as "temporary". This means great difficulty in obtaining education for children, health care and all the benefits listed above because one doesn't have a permanent residence permit. Workers here are not only fighting for a better cut of the "social wage" but in this strike are also demanding a 30% pay rise. The company has made some sort of offer to the workers but, such as it is, this has clearly been rejected by them and what's lacking in the "People's Republic" is any effective trade union machinery trapping the workers in the negotiating fraud. As Yue Yuen spokesman and executive director George Lui, put it on April 22: "We are not quite sure who to deal with". This is a real problem for the Chinese ruling class and leads them to rely more on the short term and ultimately counter-productive solution of brute force against the subtlety of trade union sabotage carried out by those organisations in the west for example.
Despite the fighting spirit and the solidarity expressed by the working class in China, indeed because of it, there are also problems and obstacles that the workers need to confront, just like their class brothers in the west. Strikes in China are this year a third up on the same period last year which also saw significant increases in incidents of labour unrest; and we should remember that 99% of strikes in China are unofficial and illegal. Researchers this year have spoken of "a notable surge in the number of strikes and workers' protest since the Lunar New Year Holiday in February... the workers movement (i.e., strikes and protests) continues to be broad-based in a whole range of industries across the country". Underlining the repressive response from the Chinese state the research goes on to say that there is "a noticeable increase in both police involvement and arrests arising from workers' protests". With a weak and despised union apparatus there's no wonder that riot police have been liberally deployed here in Dongguan as they increasingly have been against workers' struggle in China. Clear information about the conduct and organisation of the strike by workers is not readily available for obvious reasons but there is some evidence that the workers feel the need to organise assemblies and elect their own delegates (there was a call from workers at one Dongguan factory for the election of their own delegates and there is certainly a "leadership" to this strike). Still, we can't know the details here. What is clear is that shortly after the strike began around a thousand workers from one Yue Yuen plant started to march (possibly to another factory), the march was confronted by riot police and dogs and its leaders were arrested with some hospitalised. There were also forays by riot police arresting some workers in and around the factory. It's quite possible that they were militants fingered by the ubiquitous All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) goons, 900,000 of whom, mostly Party members, exist across the country.
The strikes of the Yue Yuen workers are ongoing - as has been the general strike wave in China for some time - but similar issues have been raised in previous strikes this year: at IBM's Shenzhen factory and Walmart stores in late March. The ACFTU was instrumental in setting up Walmart's 400 stores in China in 2006/7 amid a government-led drive to unionise private companies. Part of the deal was that all Walmart employees would have their compulsory subs to the union deducted straight from the workers’ wages. This is now normal for Chinese industry and is a very lucrative deal for the ACFTU given its 260 million members. British unions (and unions in the west generally) have been in on this scam for decades, enriching themselves directly from the workers' payroll with the agreement of the bosses and the law.
The protest by workers against the pathetic redundancy pay offered by Walmart with the closure of their store in the Hunan province city of Changde is interesting for the attempt to "radicalise" elements of the ACFTU. Leading the protest is one Huang Xingguo, the branch secretary and chairman of the union. It turns out that Huang, like many Chinese union leaders, has come from admin management and is now apparently devoting his cause to the workers. The identification of unions with management is not at all an unfamiliar story to workers in the west, although in the latter there is more ideological obfuscation. Huang has gone a step further in following western unions by involving groups of lawyers and taking the road well-trod by British unions in looking for industrial harmony through the courts. This is an increasing tendency in China as this particular faction of the bourgeoisie looks for class peace through negotiation within the law. Other militants who have been involved in the initial strike have been arrested but unlike Huang, who is free to consort with cliques of lawyers, they have not been supported by the US union, ALF-CIO. Contrast this to one Wu Guijun, a real representative of the workers during their 3 week strike at the Hong-Kong based Diweixin furniture makers in Shenzhen. Wu was among some 200 workers arrested, detained and is still in jail but he's had the unfortunate experience of being backed by letter-writing western liberals, academics, trade union executives, human rights lawyers and even, for their own imperialist interests no doubt, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (20.12.13), all bleating about the right to strike and protest which doesn't even exist in their own countries.
The ongoing Dongguan strikes, the whole continuing strike wave in China, shows the militant courage of large masses of the proletariat. But, like their comrades in the west, the working class in China has significant challenges to confront and overcome. The strike also shows the role of the trade unions who are everywhere mandated to protect the national interest of whatever country they are working in. The function of the trade unions, and this is clearly expressed in China, is to police the workers, along with the riot police, facilitate the attacks upon them and protect the state. This is happening in China with its specifics at the moment but these anti-working class activities are fundamental aspects of the trade unions everywhere.
Baboon, 24.4.14 (This article was contributed by a sympathiser of the ICC)
China Labour Bulletin, 10.4.14
The Xinhua state newswire, 17.4.14, reports the arrests but denies anyone was injured. This is contradicted by many other reports.